Sharing our feedback on Bukit Brown in the Draft Masterplan. We are grateful to all who wrote and shared your feedback with us. Without your support, awareness of Bukit Brown would not be where it is now – not just a talking point but- a rallying point to enrich our identity, a respect for our heritage and a Singapore we can all call home. We are humbled.
“We met as volunteers and in response to a groundswell of feedback after the announcement of the plan for Bukit Brown, formed All Things Bukit Brown as a loose group of volunteers to support amateur historian Raymond Goh, people who might want to contribute time, research, translation skills, etc to raise awareness of the value of Bukit Brown. We subsequently created the blog, All Things Bukit Brown, (http://bukitbrown.com) and started organising social events onsite in December 2011 to gauge interest in Bukit Brown as a destination. We were happily surprised by the enthusiastic turn-out for 3-4 events and started guiding tours onsite with whatever knowledge we received from February 2012.
Since then, we have cobbled together a dozen committed volunteers who research and/or guide. We are pleased to report that in that time, we have guided 10,000 people to Bukit Brown, including secondary schools and tertiary institutions, overseas academics, and participants from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the Civil Service College. Former Foreign Minister George Yeo was an early visitor guided. We have also guided grassroots communities led by their MPs, including DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Sylvia Lim. This weekend, Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee will bring his grassroots community there too. Groups which have come include the elderly Chinese, the hearing impaired and the docents from the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall , National and Peranakan Museums.
Bukit Brown has already inspired the students of Pioneer Junior College to co- write the book “1911 Revolution: Singapore Pioneers in Bukit Brown” which was launched last Friday at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall. On our part we have applied for a grant from the National Heritage Board to put together useful information we have gathered over the past two years as a guide book to Bukit Brown.
Imagine this, a grassroots effort to bring 10,000 people to a site without any amenities – no toilets, drinks stalls, resting stations, shelter from the rain, marked trails or trash bins. How much more can we do together when we put our resources together? Give us a chance.
As Singaporeans, we are very proud to share what knowledge we have and encourage interest in Bukit Brown. We have met many engaged Singaporeans, academics, students, tourists, photographers, artists, etc – a diversity of participants who have reinforced the notion that Bukit Brown is more than a cemetery but a public space that draws different communities there for different reasons. We are witness to the grassroots movement which has built up a valuable community with a strong outreach component. We hope that you see this element of a place in fostering communal ties and meaning. These are valuable to building a strong and cohesive society, people rooted to their identities and bringing Singaporeans and residents together in a meaningful way. It is not something that can be easily replicated without the actual space that first drew us together in the first place.
It is this community-building effort that also drew the attention of the World Monuments Fund in awarding Bukit Brown World Monuments Watch status. We are proud of this international recognition and hope that one day, we can twin Bukit Brown with the Botanic Gardens for a unique world heritage site unmatched anywhere else in the world. That it is set in such lush and spectacular settings makes Bukit Brown all the more special.
State recognition of Bukit Brown’s intrinsic value will lift tourist awareness of Singapore in a different way, opening up ideas (and revenue streams) for education tourism, battle site tourism, cultural tourism etc in the same way medical tourism has brought international attention (and revenue) to the world-class medical services available in Singapore. Already, heritage associations in the region, specifically Penang and Malacca, have displayed keen interest in Bukit Brown and we hope there would be attendant tourism effects for the better good of Singapore and her neighbours. Not only would Singapore benefit from state recognition of the heritage value of Bukit Brown, we can work together with tourism agencies around the region and reap the benefits of good neighbourliness and joint tourism campaigns. Indeed, we are not short on ideas. We ask for the state to demonstrate leadership in this.
We hope you will protect Bukit Brown and Singapore’s historical, cultural, wartime and natural heritage for future generations, and will have an open discussion on how best to protect Bukit Brown and other heritage and nature sites affected by the proposals in the URA Draft Master Plan 2013. National development includes supporting our Nation’s sense of identity and belonging across generations in addition to infrastructure.”
Claire Leow & Catherine Lim
A call was made to the community to provide feedback to the Ministry of National Development (MND), to preserve Bukit Brown as a heritage site for future generations in the draft Master plan 2013. The closing date for feedback is 19th December 2013. For those who don’t know how to begin, there is a template available to guide you here. We encourage you to copy the email to your MP.
To those who have written, We Thank You. Some of you have shared your letters with us. We gratefully reproduce extracts with your kind permission, with the hope it will inspire others to write in and give their feedback.
If you wish to share your feedback with the community, please bcc your letter to MND to email@example.com
“We are custodians of our country’s heritage not just for ourselves but for our future generations. It is important that they continue to see for themselves how respect is being shown to our forebears and learn the very real lesson of conserving our roots even, or especially in the face of rapid urban development. Precious “history lesson materials” like Bukit Brown, once lost, may never be recovered. Let no regret come about.”
“The biggest threat to Singapore is apathy, and when Singaporeans do not feel a sense of belonging and are not bothered with what goes on here, then Singapore is in trouble. For Singapore to survive and prosper in the long term, it is necessary to have more opportunities in preserving our shared memories and creating our shared vision. And preserving Bukit Brown is an excellent opportunity that enables Singaporeans to feel that they belong here by remembering our past and creating our future.
Bukit Brown tells the stories of our forefathers who built Singapore, and creates opportunities for history education and discovery. The cemetery connects Singapore’s past and present, and allows us to understand that Singapore’s success is built up by our forefathers’ sweat and tears, and should not be taken for granted. We should preserve Bukit Brown because it helps us remember our past and keeps us rooted to Singapore.
Bukit Brown presents the opportunity for transforming the cemetery into a world-class living outdoor museum or heritage park. If this transformation adopts a bottom-up approach and with stakeholder engagement, it would allow us to come together, plan and work towards a future Singapore where heritage, nature and our economic needs can co-exist. We should preserve Bukit Brown because it enables us to work together and build bonds and resilience, and to create a space where our children and their children can enjoy and be proud of.
Singapore is a young nation and needs more common spaces like Bukit Brown to remind us how we got here and why this is home, and to create opportunities for building our future social resilience.”
“I am a fourth generation Singaporean. My great-grandfather, Chew Boon Lay, was one of Singapore’s very important pioneers.
In April 2012, my parents and I, along with my husband who is English, and our 2 children, discovered where my great-grandfather was buried in Bukit Brown. Thanks to a Straits Times journalist who did a photo-editorial on several important pioneers’ descendants, a photo shoot was conducted at the site of Chew Boon Lay’s tomb.
My parents who had not been to his tomb in more than 20 years came along as well, as did many of my extended family of cousins, uncles, and other relatives. Despite my parents both being aged and not able to walk or see well, they both made the uphill trek to Chew Boon Lay’s tomb in the dark as a huge storm was looming. That was such an important day for them and my family. I was re-acquainted with many relatives and met some whom I had never even met before. We have had several family gatherings since and as such, our April 2012 ‘reunion’ at Chew Boon Lay’s tomb in Bukit Brown served as a very important point of re-connecting with long lost relatives.
My father who is 83 was so elated to have been able to visit his grandfather’s tomb and pay respects to him again after such a long period of time. He was even happier to meet his many nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews, many of whom he had never met before. My siblings live abroad and when they returned to Singapore, I brought them to my great-grandfather’s tomb. All of them were so amazed at how peaceful and beautiful Bukit Brown is, but more importantly they were so happy to be able to visit our great-grandfather’s tomb for the first time.
Having reconnected with my Singapore roots via my great-grandfather’s tomb, I feel so proud to be a 4th generation Singaporean of an important Singapore pioneer who had such humble beginnings and contributed much to Singapore’s growth and prosperity. My children are both Singaporean and English and I want them to grow up feeling connected to Singapore and to be able to trace their roots in Singapore back to my great-grandfather. It was important for me that they visit his tomb and pay respects to their great-great-grandfather and to feel proud to be his descendants. I want them to be able to do this when they are older and when I am no longer around….such a connection in our young country that is forever trying to modernize and improve itself is, for me, one of the most important things if we want our children to have roots in, and feel connected to, Singapore.”
Other than the Bukit Timah Nature Reserves, Bukit Brown is a another place where I can bring my families out to Experience nature in a SAFE environment. National Parks are wonderful but they do not give the sense of one totally immersing in Nature.
“We are in a jungle.” my 6 year old boy Isaac said that with excitement when I brought him to the Bukit Brown. We have built too many shopping malls and what values are we cultivating when weekend we see Singaporeans crowding the malls and yet complaining that we are bored to death? Our souls are not fed with Nature but shopping malls and how would that make us as a Nation? We fly out of the country during school holidays to visit other country’s nature while we are destroying one in our own backyard? An article written by a 12 year old lavanyaprakash on Bukit Brown reminded me how important it is to preserve such AUTHENTIC nature and to educate Singaporeans on Nature Outings. I want my children’s generations to be able to experience this Nature and not just Bukit Timah Reserves or other man made National Parks. Thus, not only it is a National Heritage to be preserved, it is a World Heritage to be preserved!”
Other than the Bukit Timah Nature Reserves, Bukit Brown is a another place where I can bring my families out to Experience nature in a SAFE environment. National Parks are wonderful but they do not give the sense of one totally immersing in Nature. “We are in a jungle.” my 6 year old boy Isaac said that with excitement when I brought him to the Bukit Brown. We have built too many shopping malls and what values are we cultivating when weekend we see Singaporeans crowding the malls and yet complaining that we are bored to death? Our souls are not fed with Nature but shopping malls and how would that make us as a Nation? We fly out of the country during school holidays to visit other country’s nature while we are destroying one in our own backyard? An article written by a 12 year old lavanyaprakash on Bukit Brown reminded me how important it is to preserve such AUTHENTIC nature and to educate Singaporeans on Nature Outings. I want my children’s generations to be able to experience this Nature and not just Bukit Timah Reserves or other man made National Parks. Thus, not only it is a National Heritage to be preserved, it is a World Heritage to be preserved!”
Ang Hock Chuan
“As recently as September 2011, Bukit Brown was just another cemetery to me. I only remember it as the place I learnt to drive and as the place my grandfather was buried.
My father visited his father’s tomb every Ching Ming till an illness made it difficult for him to walk in that terrain. He had prepared for the eventuality of exhumation and already bought a niche for my grandfather. Unfortunately, I stopped following my father to visit years ago and forgotten where my grandfather was buried.
When my father passed away a few years ago, I became interested to look for my grandfather’s tomb. It would be the last thing I could do for my father to ensure his father’s remains are properly taken care of.
When I heard the news about the proposed highway, there was an urgency to locate my grandfather. I started to search for people who can help me locate him and stumbled on a group of volunteers sharing about Bukit Brown.
My initial interest was to look for my grandfather’s tomb and determine if it would be affected so I can make the necessary arrangements to relocate him.
I joined their guided tours in October 2011. That opened up my eyes to the rich heritage and history contained in Bukit Brown.
Over many visits I was also introduced to the rich bio-diversity and wildlife thriving in this habitat. Whilst I enjoyed listening to the birds in the woods, I was never an avid bird-watcher. But now, I keep a look out for the birds when I am there. I have seen uncommon and endangered species like the Changeable Hawk Eagle, the Red Jungle Fowl, the Greater Coucal and still learning each day about the special flora and fauna of Singapore there.
Bukit Brown turned into a living museum and classroom for me. History came alive. Our cultural heritage is enshrined here. A rich bio-diversity thrives here. It has an aesthetic beauty not found in our man-made parks. I count it my good fortune to have learnt about and visited this wonderful piece of our heritage before any wanton destruction takes place.
For these reasons and more, I hope to see Bukit Brown preserved, for our children’s and grandchildren’s sake. Once lost, lost forever.”
“We need not look any further than to Bukit Brown when we try to form our Singapore Identity because it is there for all to see. It is a living museum of our rich history that reminds us that our forefathers were migrants from various lands who decided to root themselves here in the Straits Settlement of Singapore, and we are their proud offspring. The fact that Singapore started as a migrant nation also helps us understand and welcome those who come here today, like our forefathers, to seek their fortune and make Singapore their home.”
Arielle Ng Rae
As a local student and youth, I finally took the time out today to join one of the tour groups organised by SOS Bukit Brown today, which I have been wanting to do ever since my ‘A’-levels finished. I was pleasantly surprised with the beauty and heritage of the site, but I was also incredibly saddened. The tour guides were very passionate and knowledgeable about local heritage, and the knowledge I gained today about Singapore and its roots, about how the locals worked together with a myriad of other races to form modern Singapore, about the roots of our unique culture that we often take for granted, made me the proudest of Singapore that I have ever been.
Through the tour, I finally appreciated exactly what it meant to be a melting pot of diverse cultures– how our customs came to be and as a result, how unique we are, and, ironically, the beauty of globalization in contributing to our shared heritage.
I plead with the most earnest and sincere heart, that you will protect Bukit Brown, for the sake of Singaporeans, who are fast becoming disillusioned with this city-state. This tour has done nothing but cement my love for Singapore and my pride for it, and I want many of my peers to feel the same. It is perhaps the natural state of the cemetery, and the untouched beauty of the landscape that lent this genuine connection and pride, but whatever it is, Bukit Brown cemetery has proven to be a beautiful reminder of what it once meant to be Singaporean, and what it could mean for future generations to come.
“Bukit Brown has helped me achieve a better understanding of a history of a part of Singapore’s local history, and has helped me gain a stronger sense of where our nation has come from as a community. It is a reminder of where our society came from and the sacrifices earlier generations made. I hope my children will be able to experience the sheer physicality of our roots, as well as Singapore’s natural heritage. The flooding in Singapore over the past few years, including the Bukit Timah and Thomson areas that are downhill from Bukit Brown, reminds me of the importance of having natural green spaces near already built-up areas.
Moreover, during the periods of heavy haze earlier in 2013, green areas like Bukit Brown were least affected. Singapore needs natural green lungs like Bukit Brown.”
“It is OUR oldest part of history. My grandfather’s grave at Bidadari was long gone more than 10 years ago to clear his “resting place” for more housing developments. Passing by that stretch of road gives us no connection anymore. Even though we have never met our grandfather before, we used to pop by his grave as a kid just to say “hello”, or just to remember how he looked like before by the photo on his grave. We felt the root of our roots. We felt proud of ourselves in some way too because of where we came from. Now I understand why history is such an important part of life.
So, please do not do to the oldest cemetery in Singapore, the Bukit Brown Cemetery what the government had already done at Bidadari. How much more land or our past that you want to “sacrifice” for economic development? Bukit Brown CAN BE an economic source if it can be converted to a tourist area, natural reserve etc. We do not want more roads, please.”
“I am a British citizen who has settled in Singapore with my family and now call it home – and I am proud to do so. My daughter was born here and we are happy here. However, my husband and I are trying to teach our children about the importance of preserving our environment and our natural heritage. We often tell them “once it’s gone, you can’t get it back” and we quote the Native American Cree prophecy “When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money”. It is heartbreaking to think that in a few years’ time, such a place as Bukit Brown – with its natural, historical and cultural significance – might be concreted over. Please, please consider saving it for our future generations.”
While I have only set foot on Bukit Brown once, I am fascinated by the deep treasure trove of history it is. It is an unbias holding place of history as alot of our ancestor laid to rest. I remembered when I was young, I have to walk through Choa Chu Kang and there was this cemetery that fascinated me as it has very interesting tombs. I never get around to know it as it made way to development since. It would be a pity if we keep making concession on preservation in the name of progress as that would be a very up-rooting experience. No pictures or archive can replace the actual tombstone and the serenity is irreplaceable.
“I am the third generation of Kinmenese immigrants. My great grandparents were once buried in Bukit Brown cemetery. My father, Mr Tan Kok Meng 陈国民, had served as board member, treasurer and subsequently as vice chairman of Kim Mui Hoey Kuan 金门会馆 from late 60s to 80s. During that time, he organized many cultural activities and exchanges, including hosting the Asian literary festival. He had also proposed to setup a center to store valuable historical material of Kinmen and their diaspora. The subsequent setting up of the Cultural and Historical Resource Center 新加坡金门会馆文史资料中心 in 2003 and the publication of “I came from Kim Mui” 《我从金门来》in 2006 (which my father was one of the interviewees) were some of the visible fruits.
Now that my father has passed away for four years, I have kept this book close to my heart. My daughter recently used it to write a social science essay about her root. My father, after escaping the turmoil of war had decided to make Singapore his permanent home. Along with many others who came to Singapore between 18th – 20th century, they have contributed to who we are today. Even though we are still a young country, we do have our own history. And the major part of it, is inscribed on the tomb stones in Bukit Brown Cemetery. ”
“My daughter and I visited Bukit Brown and were deeply moved by the heritage and biodiversity of Bukit Brown. Lavanya,who’s my 13 year old daughter wrote about Bukit Brown in her blog here http://mynatureexperiences.
Singapore is not only about concrete buildings and integrated resorts: it has in Bukit Brown a huge repository of stories which when told, make people aware of Singapore as a hub of trade commerce and culture in Asia all this long time ago. It is so much easier to show a human Singapore when you bring back to mind the human stories told every week by the Brownies on their tours – these are stories that make this place, home.
Conservation does not mean no development
One point I wish to stress is that conservation does not mean no development: just as we can develop around an existing building and incorporate its uniqueness into our plans, it should be possible to conserve Bukit Brown without halting development. What is needed is more diverse, out-of-the-box thinking. For instance we will still need parks in Singapore – well, we have one already. While the older generations have reservations about going to a cemetery for a walk, the younger set do not, and Bukit Brown is already being used as one. Why not develop it’s potential? Here is a place where amidst the stones stories of old Singapore lie. The Brownies have bring the stories to life during their tours, which as noted above, have been receiving a lot of tourist publicity through word of mouth and social media. If self-funded volunteers can do so much, how much more can they achieve if they had help?”
“Each time I pay a visit there, it stirs up emotions from a sort of deep-seated ‘spiritual’ wellspring which I did not know I have. A spiritual awakening of sorts. Ironic isn’t it from a burial ground?
Maybe, it’s the tranquil surroundings, the wonderful tales of an almost forgotten past kept alive by the elan of the volunteer guides, or could it be just the spirits of the ancestors channelling….. I would often end up going away asking myself: How is it that we have neglected our past? Why? Who are we as Singaporeans? What keeps us going? What inspires us? Do we have a national soul? Did we start any fire or if there are any embers left? And so on. So here are some of those rambling thoughts…….after my latest ramble over the hills of Bukit Brown.”
Protecting the Memory of Our Pioneers; Laying Claim to Unclaimed Tombs
They came by sea and dreaded being lost at sea before arriving in safe harbour, relieved at the sight of the glittering lights bobbing on the ships anchored at the mouth of the Singapore River, giving the island the moniker, the Isle of Stars. We cannot now leave those unclaimed to that cruel fate they avoided.
By Claire Leow
(August 9, 2013)
News this week that the contract for the new road has been awarded was like a punch in the gut, as much as it had been expected to happen. With the announcement, tombs affected would be exhumed by the fourth quarter.
But as the news filtered into my consciousness, one fact hit me harder than any other. It was not about transport policies, the population forecast or the contradiction about land use around the central catchment area. It lay in the numbers: 4,153 and 1,263.
“Since details of the affected graves were published in March 2012, the Land Transport Authority has received a total of 1,263 claims for affected graves,” read the announcement.
It stopped me in my tracks. First, the number of graves to be affected has risen to 4,153 graves and second, of these only 1,263 have been claimed.
There are those who say 4,153 out of 100,000 tombs is but a small percentage but we who are trying to raise awareness of the value of Bukit Brown are not in the game of mathematical democracy. We have a holistic perspective. These are the lives of pioneers we are talking about, not a question of minority and majority. To potentially lose trace of the history of that many is painful. Over the last 20 months where volunteers stepped forward to help amateur historian Raymond Goh in his valiant attempt to explore our forgotten history, we have but scratched the surface with our amateur sleuthing and but explored a mere hundred or more. To think we have not yet unraveled the stories of another 4,000 is rather deflating. Time is not on our side. We are a society in a hurry to move forward.
Then there is the question of the unclaimed – 4,153 minus 1,263 or 2,890.
I know for a fact from our volunteer work on the ground that this doesn’t reflect badly on families who have not claimed their forebears – we know for a fact that many, for various reasons, have not been able to trace all their ancestors. Others are still searching. (Tips on tracing ancestors here. Burial register here.)
There are a variety of reasons and this list is not exhaustive: false leads, such as confusing spellings of Romanised Chinese names, spelling them in Mandarin or dialect pronunciation, or confusing dates (does 7-5-23 scribbled in mom’s notes refer to May 7, 1923 or the fifth day of the seventh lunar month on the Chinese calendar? Does it refer to 1923 on the Roman calendar or the 23rd year of the Republic, namely 1934?). They have the work cut out for them.
There’s also the older practice among the Chinese to have several names, at birth, puberty and in adulthood. For the luminous, there were also titles bought or bestowed. Further, it was considered rude to refer to elders by name. As time passed, it would be hard to remember or record all these monikers. The wonderful find of Seah Eu Chin’s tomb after 100 years illustrated this point – for he was identified by his generational name, a cultural practise in decline. The Seah clan, which used to have large reunions until the war disrupted the practice, came together at the grave site last year and most recently at the exhibition, Bukit Brown: Our Roots, Our Future, as researcher Walter Lim explained the cultural background key to understanding the familial history.
Many others, raised on the Speak Mandarin policy, have also lost traces of their regional languages such as Hokkien, Teochew and Hakka, and are unable to recall the oral history left by their parents/grandparents and pronounce their ancestors’ names correctly and trace the transliterated names in Romanised pronunciation. There are many such obstacles in ancestor tracing.
Then there is the fact that Bukit Brown, unlike clan cemeteries of its time, was a municipal cemetery created with the foresight of the likes of Municipal Commissioners Tan Kheam Hock and See Tiong Wah who saw the coalsecing of society and created a communal resting space for members of a society that may not have been identifying with clans. Therefore the Straits Chinese or Peranakans were burying their loved ones at Bukit Brown, giving it the moniker, the Peranakan Cemetery. Indeed many Peranakan luminaries are buried there, such as Tan Kheam Hock himself, Chia Hood Theam and Tan Keong Saik. It is a well-known fact that Peranakans speak dialects or Malay and English rather than Mandarin, which has made it hard for many descendants to find the tombs when they cannot read the grave inscriptions. Hence many Peranakans have difficulty finding their forebears unless there are English epitaphs to help.
Raymond Goh and I personally witnessed the effect of this language deficiency in the case of Tok Cheng Tuan and his widow, Oon Tuan Cheng, buried in Hill 2. When the descendants approached us, we were intrigued and began to join the dots and to find out more from them and for them. And there, on the grounds of Bukit Brown, Raymond found the tombs of Tok’s mothers and Oon’s parents. A family that had only just confirmed they had to exhume two ancestors now realised six were at stake. How many more were like them, unaware of other relatives affected by the highway?
In the case of Oon’s parents, it was also serendipitous that Raymond posted an old newspaper notice about Oon Chong Lock’s granddaughter’s wedding, which featured the name of the grandfather of a Singaporean lady. “That’s how we managed to connect the dots!” she said. And that was also how a second family came into the picture, from another branch of the family. With that find, all six tombs – and not just two – have been claimed. “It’s very moving to see the names of my father, aunts, uncles on the tomb,” the descendant said. Thanks to these inscriptions, another researcher has since found her grandfather’s tomb, also at Bukit Brown.
It is not difficult to imagine this scenario being repeated many times over but others not having the chance to unravel these threads given the timeframe for the road construction. It is only recently that many archived documents and articles have been digitised to make ancestor tracing a tad easier.
There are yet others who are part of the Singapore diaspora trying to find their roots but are hampered by distance and time, aided by volunteers and social media to share information and leads. In fact, one of the most touching moments in this enterprise to raise awareness of the heritage and history of Bukit Brown and assist the community came early, when Alex Lim, who lives in Shanghai, helped to perform tomb-sweeping rites last year for a man, Khoo Phee Soon, buried near his grandfather on behalf of Khoo’s descendant, Anna De Lataulade of Toronto, Canada. The tombs are on Hill 4.
As he helped Anna on this errand, posting photos for her benefit, Alex mused online, “Time flies… 73 years since he left this world…”
Anna, thousands of miles away, replied on the Facebook page, “He was loved and is not forgotten.”
Alex and Anna have never met. This moving vignette is evidence that Bukit Brown is as much for the living as for the dead.
Likewise, 180 years after he passed on, Fang Shan, a coolie, is still remembered – not by family, but by clansmen. It remains one of the most poignant experiences to stand at his humble grave and realise the value of memory and the need to honour the humble beginnings of our country. To boot, his gravestone bears the early name of Singapore, 星 洲 (Sin Zhou), Isle of Stars. I spoke about this in this TEDx talk.
“Sin Chew” is a sobriquet for “Singapore” popularized by Nanyang literatus Khoo Seok Wan (also buried at Bukit Brown and to be exhumed for the highway). Singapore is an island surrounded by the sea, and with vessels and boats large and small anchored around it; the glitter of artificial lights at night are like a crown of illuminated stars (“星”) when viewed from afar. “洲” (zhou, island) and “舟” (zhou, boat) are homonyms: while the boat lights are like stars, those on the island are like the Big Dipper to accentuate the constellation. This is why the term “Sin Chew” is widely known by folks here and afar.
(Liang Shao Wen, “Nanyang Travels”, p. 62, circa 1920s, translated by Lai Chee Kien)
It’s worth re-telling that tidbit on this, our 48th National Day, August 9, 2013. The theme this year is Many Stories, One Singapore. Well, here are the many stories laid in the open museum of Bukit Brown. Many stories, one history. Today, onsite, we celebrate Many Stories, One Singapore @ Bukit Brown.
For in the end, we are one big family. We stand on the shoulders of our pioneers. They came by sea and dreaded being lost at sea before arriving in safe harbour, relieved at the sight of the glittering lights bobbing on the ships anchored at the mouth of the Singapore River, giving the island the moniker, the Isle of Stars.
We cannot now leave those unclaimed to that cruel fate they avoided. They came ashore and many never made the return trip home. Many even feared getting on a boat ever again and face the perils at sea.
For better or for worse, Singapore would be home forever. They are sons and daughters of our soil now.
(Tomb couplets which tell the story arc of a typical immigrant to Singapore: born in China, buried in Singapore.)
Now 2,890 of these pioneers are again adrift in the tides of history. Under current practice, if they are unclaimed after three years, their ashes would be cast at sea in a place off Changi, lost to time and tide forever. This realisation, more than any other detail with the announcement of the road contract, is heart-wrenching.
Therefore I would venture to ask, if they are unclaimed, can we as a nation find it in our hearts to “claim” them as our family, the family of our nation, and allow them a place in the columbarium instead of being cast at sea?
There has been talk of a memorial garden for those to be exhumed for the road. Personally I find this redundant. For Bukit Brown is already a memorial garden. Any alternative pales in comparison. In fact, there is no comparison.
But for those unclaimed, soon to be lost to history, I would like to appeal for a memorial columbarium, that they may remain on Singapore soil, that should descendants realise in time who they are, may find them in the columbarium, and until that time, such a columbarium may be the repository of information for such research. Torn apart from the earth protectors and at the cusp of eviction, it is only right that we protect them and honour their memory with a final resting place on our land.
The task of remembering doesn’t just fall upon descendants. Our pioneers are our nation’s forebears.
Our pioneers are not just numbers on stakes. These are their names.
Elegy for an Urban Graveyard by the Economist
The “Brownie” Researchers of Bukit Brown:
Please join one of the tours via the Facebook page. The little voice in my head did ask, ‘why do you want to visit a graveyard, isn’t it creepy?’ But having been there, I can say it was a really moving experience. The wilderness in particular is really beautiful.
Bukit Brown has also received international attention e.g., http://www.economist.com/
There’s a tiny, tiny window of opportunity to change decisions. Visit Bukit Brown yourself, and if it touches you, then perhaps write to the LTA or contact your local MP to save Bukit Brown for its heritage and biodiversity value.”
by Goh Si Guim, of Nature Society (Singapore)
Bukit Brown at a Crossroad; Possible alternative
With the increased in population in Singapore, We envisioned that more land would be taken up by infrastructures. Areas occupied by roads will also grow to accommodate the concomitant growth in car population in Singapore. We recognized that the relevant agencies have implemented various measures to manage and curb growth in car population. Over the years, these measures include improvement in road systems and ERP. At the same time efforts have been made to make public transportation palatable to a wider section of the population. The greatly expanded rail network is a case in point.
However, it has been demonstrated that these measures, touted as ways to slash or curb car numbers, have been unsuccessful. It must also be recognized that the car population cannot be allowed to grow unabated, especially when there is fierce competitive uses for limited land. A measure of proportionality must prevail. Should it be skewed one way or another, they should be for the good of the great majority.
In this instance, a eight-lane highway is to be built to allow for a smoother flow of traffic over a short stretch of road. This is essentially to address a localized problem for some transient periods of time.
This problem could also be contributed by heavy and slow traffic flow in regions immediately adjacent to Lornie Road. We ponder its necessity and its ability to ameliorate the bottleneck encountered here and further afield, in areas leading to and leading away from Lornie Road.
These glacial traffics hinder the flow of vehicles, including public buses, which serve a greater proportion of the commuting public. With these schedules disrupted, it is not surprising that public transportation has been branded as unreliable.
An alternative passage to the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE) can be implemented that could alleviate the congestions experience along Lornie Road and the close vicinities.
With the continuing expansion of the rail network (more in the pipeline), it is also time to relook current measures to manage car population.
The traffic coming from the north-east region of Singapore is largely channeled to the PIE via Lornie Road. The main axes leading to Lornie Road are Bartley Road, Upper Serangoon Road and the Central Expressway (CTE), through Braddell Road. Lornie Road also receives substantial traffic coming down from Upper Thomson Road, serving heartland areas of Bishan and Ang Mo Kio. Traffic going down Adam Road could have been slowed down by the busy Farrer-Bukit Timah junction. The slip roads from Lornie Road into both direction of PIE may also be inadequate.
Furthermore, the PIE itself may have been overwhelmed by heavy traffic, streaming from the east and city and north, via the CTE. This, in turn, slows down the traffic joining and leaving PIE at that junction. Several schools are situated around Whitley Road and Bukit Timah Road. Parents dropping off and picking up their children also impede traffic.
All in, the traffic in the wider area around and linked to Lornie Road are in the same state, slowed to a crawl in those hours!
Lornie Road merely serves as a conduit to channel traffic from one congested area to another. Having passed through the snarl on Lornie Road itself, motorist would still find themselves inching their way through many of the roads with myriad of intersections. During peak hours, the traffic exceeded the carrying capacities of Lornie and these other roads that are either feeding traffic into or draining traffic from it.
The junction of Sime Road and Lornie Road with traffic lights serves the needs of a small number of cars leaving Singapore Island Country Club. But it contributes substantially to the congestion and should be done away with.
The capacity of the PIE can be doubled with a extensive viaduct built over PIE (akin to West Coast/Pasir Panjang Road, Upper Serangoon Road, near Lor Lew Lian) as a two-tier highway.
With leaving Bukit Brown intact in mind, a viaduct can start from the Thomson/Marymount /Braddell junction (Junction A) area, above the Thomson Road southward towards the old Police Academy, swing west at the corner on PIE west of the Thomson Flyerover (Junction B). A slip road can allow traffic to join the PIE towards the East. The viaduct then follows the course of the PIE, over the Mt Pleasant Flyover (Bottleneck 2) and Adam Flyover (Bottleneck 1). It may rejoin PIE somewhere before the Eng Neo (or even before Exit 22). Alternatively, it can continue westwards to reach BKE. Eastwards, the viaduct can link up with CTE and perhaps beyond.
This viaduct would allow a large part of the east-west traffic to avoid those junctions that are feeding traffic into the PIE or bleeding traffic to surrounding regions. It thus allows some unhindered traffic on the viaduct, enabling them to avoid junctions or exit roads of no relevance to them. At the same time, these measures de-congest the original PIE, early smoother traffic flow in and out of peripheral roads.
Similar viaducts like the West Coast/Pasir Panjang Road viaduct and Upper Serangoon (passing Paya Lebar Methodist Church) viaduct and others essentially serve to allow motorists unimpeded travel,
Doubling the capacity of main carriageways through multi-tier methodology should be carried out more widely. This would allow the capacity of existing land devoted to roads to be harnessed several hundred percents. Converting new land to roads can be avoided, allow them to retain its present purpose or purposes that benefit other segment of the population (other than the motoring population). We ‘double’ exploit, where possible, the thousands of square kilometer of existing road surface that has already covered a substantial amount of land area in Singapore.
With direct reference to Bukit Brown, the grounds should be left in its existing state. The value of natural greenery defies easy quantification in terms of its biodiversity, climatic and environmental moderation, aesthetic and therapeutic benefits.
The quality matters a great deal too. Open grasslands, such as golf courses, are not substantive greenery, lacking in diversity and biomass. Here the greenery needs to be ‘multi-tiered’ as well and would do better to contribute the benefits mentioned prior.
Spaces need to be set aside for the times when the populace is not contributing to the GDP. Nature areas play valuable roles while seem idle. They contribute to the GDP by providing the counterbalance to a hectic lifestyle; rejuvenate us, enabling us to contribute to the GDP through healthy productivity and optimal consumption of resources. Nature heals in mysterious ways. Though unquantifiable, they nevertheless have immense power and value and contribute positively to the national ‘pie’, our economy.
Overall, this new highway does not alleviate the jam if the downstream hiccups are not done away with. By zooming out, It would be noted that the traffic snarl cover areas greater than Lornie Road itself. A more comprehensive study is needed.
By building this highway, it could only mean that a greater volume of vehicles is trapped and sitting through the jam, spewing toxic gases into the atmosphere.
On a wider perspective, it will be a very expensive undertaking to accommodate more cars on our road. This is in terms of the resources and their impact on the health of the environment and the population.
A high level panel must be created to comprehensively relook the overall infrastructural needs at many levels and involving many levels of consultation. All concepts and projections, however mundane or radical, must not be hastily dismissed but duly and rigorously addressed.
The relevant agencies must be forthcoming in seeking expertise input, even non-mainstream ones. Pertinent information must be shared in order that consultation covers all aspects.
A convincing outcome would be one that is acceptable to all.
The community of concerned groups over the future of Bukit Brown is formally calling for a moratorium on all plans for Bukit Brown. This moratorium should be in place until there is clarity over long-term plans for the area and discussions over alternatives have been exhausted. Given on-going national discussions over housing, transportation and immigration, there is room for policy adjustments. Plans to develop housing and transport infrastructure in the greater Bukit Brown area cannot be made when these discussions are underway and before the public has had an opportunity to fully consider the details surrounding such proposals.
In addition, there has not been sufficient time for a public conversation over plans by the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Land Transport Authority for Bukit Brown, nor a discussion about the alternatives proposed by the Nature Society’s position paper issued in December. We are asking for more meaningful engagement than what we have experienced so far. Bukit Brown is important enough that all parties should be able to participate in discussions over its future reasonably as interested citizens, whether individually, as informal communities, or organised formally.
More on the NSS Position Paper
What would Singapore be like if our grandparents had won?
By Lisa Li
Cemeteries now occupy less than 0.95% of land – do our grandchildren really need this?
“Do you want me to look after our dead grandparents or do you want me to look after your grandchildren?” asked then-Cabinet Minister Lim Kim San in the 1960s, and Minister of State Tan Chuan-Jin in 2012.
What would Singapore be like if our grandparents had won?
For one, we wouldn’t have the clear, grassy slopes of Fort Canning Park for WOMAD and Ballet Under the Stars. No, in its place, we’d have a messy Fort Canning Cemetery crowded with 19th-century graves of governors, administrators, sailors, traders, teachers, many young women and children – some even buried two to a grave.
Instead of Bishan housing estate, home to 91,298 people at last count, the Cantonese Kwong Wai Siew Association might still have their Peck San Theng (Jade Hill Pavilion) built in 1870 – the largest cemetery in Singapore, with 75,234 graves eventually exhumed. Likewise parts of Tiong Bahru, Henderson, Redhill, Serangoon, Jalan Bukit Merah would still have cemeteries where public housing now stands.
A Jewish cemetery dating from 1838 or 1841 would stand in place of Dhoby Ghaut MRT station, its small plot housing 160 graves. And instead of the shops at Velocity, Novena Square, Phoenix Park, we might see Jewish tombs designed by the famous Italian sculptor Cavalieri Rodolfo Nolli in the Thomson Road Jewish Cemetery, in use from 1904 onwards.
Instead of KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, on the land between Bukit Timah, Kampong Java, Halifax and Hooper Road, we’d have a flood-prone Bukit Timah Cemetery packed with Catholic and Protestant graves from 1865.
Neither would we have Ngee Ann City, Mandarin Hotel, Cathay Cineleisure and Wisma Atria. Instead, in the heart of Orchard Road would sit a 28-hectare burial ground Tai Shan Ting, managed by theTeochew Ngee Ann Kongsi.
And of course, we wouldn’t have those clear, flat fields along Upper Serangoon Road, a space now emptying itself out in preparation for new condominiums and residential towns. In its place, we might still have the 10.5-hectare early 20th-century Bidadari Cemetary, with its delicate marble sculptures and tombstones etched with different languages in the Christian, Muslim and Hindu sections.
One might conclude that the 1960s generation did the right thing. They were self-sacrificial enough (or, were forced) to forgo their ancestors’ graves so that their grandchildren could have the space for housing, shopping, infrastructure, all these modern amenities we now enjoy.
Especially for those of us living and working in Orchard, Novena, Tiong Bahru, Henderson, Redhill, Serangoon, Jalan Bukit Merah, this giving up of graveyard space for modern development seems good and necessary.
Burial grounds now occupy less than 0.95% of Singapore’s land area
But the fact is, back in 1967, burial grounds only made up 1.1% (619 hectares) of land area on Singapore Island, and by 1982, after the clearing of Bukit Timah Cemetery, Peck San Theng (Bishan) etc, it was down to 534 hectares (approx 0.95% of Singapore’s land area).
Furthermore, this 0.95% figure doesn’t even include the Thomson Road Jewish Cemetery (cleared by 1985), 10.5 hectare Bidadari Cemetery (cleared by 2006), and 7-hectare Kwong Hou Sua in Woodlands (cleared by 2009).
Is it really necessary to wipe clean these remaining precious spaces that take up less than 0.95% of Singapore’s land area?
And if Singapore desperately needs more land, why aren’t we first using the land area currently occupied by Orchid Country Club, Raffles Country Club, Singapore Island Country Club, Warren Golf & Country Club, and the golf and country clubs in Changi, Jurong, Keppel, Marina Bay, Kranji, Selatar Base, Sembawang, Tanah Merah?
(Golf courses cover 2.2% of Singapore, according to the URA Land Allocation Focus Group Final Report 2001.)
Perhaps in the past, it was deemed necessary for our grandparents to relinquish their burial grounds for public housing and the development of the shopping belt in Orchard and Novena.
But how much is enough, and what is the optimum point between preserving tangible heritage and history, and allowing the land to be taken over by even more modern amenities, condominiums and wider roads? This concerns all of us and future generations, and we need proper, genuine discussion before bulldozers irreversibly destroy these old spaces.
Minister of State Tan Chuan-Jin’s argument hinges on Mr Lim Kim San’s question, but asking Singaporeans to choose between our dead grandparents and our grandchildren is a severe misrepresentation of the issue.
I strongly suspect our grandchildren will not live in misery for want of that extra 0.95% of land. In fact, I hope our grandchildren will be more creative in their urban design, with efficient use of land and infrastructure, without resorting to the destruction of the few cemeteries left.
And if current public sentiment is anything to judge the future by, I suspect our grandchildren will enjoy walking in a protected, conserved Bukit Brown, seeing and touching history in tangible forms, and will one day ask, what would Singapore be like if our grandparents had won? That is, if we don’t win today.
Lisa Li is a member of SOS Bukit Brown. The Community of Bukit Brown calls for a moratorium on all plans for Bukit Brown, until there is clarity over long-term plans for the area and discussions over alternatives have been exhausted.
Tan, K. YL, ‘Introduction: The Death of Cemeteries in Singapore’ from Spaces of the Dead: A Case from the Living, (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2011.
Tan, B.H. & Yeoh, B. SA, ‘The Remains of the Dead: Spatial Politics of Nation-Building in Post-war Singapore’ from Spaces of the Dead: A Case from the Living, (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2011).
If you have come to know Bukit Brown and feel that it embraces our collective identity of Heritage.Habitat.History, then join the people of all ages and from all walks of life who have signed the open letter to the authorities to save it. Spread the word so it may be appreciated by future generations as a living legacy.
Heritage. Habitat. History.
The experts weigh in on what could happen if Bukit Brown goes down the route of the 8 lane highway…..